Monday, January 6, 2014

Yoga and Orthodoxy: Compare and Contrast

Assignment: Compare and contrast yoga and Orthodox Judaism.

The panelists are all familiar with both yoga and religious, observant Judaism.  They are all friends of mine in real life.  Some are highly trained yogis and others practitioners.  Note: the ideas and opinions expressed below do not necessarily reflect my theology.  


The Similarities


Sandy Gross:

They're the same, in that it's morals and ethics.  It's more like Mussar (spiritual character development in Judaism).  As far as Orthodoxy, yoga just uses different tools - poses, for example - for us to "practice" applying these morals and ethics (in yoga they're called Yamas & Niyamas).  Orthodoxy uses other practical tools - the 613 laws.  Both are practices, and practical, and that's why I like JFX (the Jewish Family Experience, our congregation) so much!  We can always use more tools to help us be more mindful and inspired people:)


Scott Simon:

I think what is interesting about yoga poses - which most people consider "yoga" to be - is that they are not really about getting into shape.  They are actually meant to prepare the body to be able to sit for long periods of time in spiritual quest (meditation etc).  Judaism I am sure has methods to begin the process of getting us ready to enhance our connection with G-d through prayer.   


Sindy Warren:

I agree with Scott's point about the yoga poses (asana practice) being intended to ready the body and mind for meditation, which can be, in some ways, likened to prayer.  I also like Sandy's point about both paths being moral and ethical guidelines for proper living.  They can also both be seen as paths for spiritual growth and bringing one closer to one's own potential.


Sandy Gross:

I view the laws, mitzvot, as very present moment opportunities to connect to G-d.  If one chooses to do them:). Ha. That's why I think a lot people have connected so well into yoga - learning to integrate your upper arm bone into the shoulder socket properly in a weight bearing position (and other physical alignment hard rules), for example, may not seem very "spiritual"  but to me, it's integrating mind with body, helping the body to return to harmony - it should be considered spiritual.  Alignment for me is respect for this amazing body and this is extremely spiritual.  I am integrating it with its operating system (G-d?) with every move I make.  I try anyway...that's why we call it a yoga "practice"  :). 


Karen Marocco:


I think in many ways Judaism and yoga complement each other. Below are some of my thoughts:

For me, yoga is very much a practice of mindfulness. On the surface it's about being aware of how your body moves/feels, the quality of breathing, what you eat etc. But it's also about being mindful/aware of your thoughts, habits and actions-even throughout the day when you're not doing the actual poses. For example, loshon hara  (the Hebrew term for the sin of gossip) is something many of us struggle with - or at least I do. Practicing mindfulness has helped me become more conscious of my words. It's hard to better yourself when you're unaware.

In teacher training we had to choose one yoga sutra/teaching that resonated with us and write about it. I chose the sutra surrender to a Higher power because it's so in alignment - get it, ha! - with Judaism.  When my mom got sick, we turned to science/medicine for help. But ultimately, we believe that it rests with God. We do what we can and then surrender the results to Hashem (God).


Jody Trostler:

Interestingly I believe that my connection to yoga when I started practicing 13 years ago-ish was what was missing for me spiritually in Judaism. I was raised very secular and did not know what I did not know about the power of Judaism spiritually and intellectually. 

As I have learned and grown Jewishly,  some of the common practices of vinyasa yoga have become a bit uncomfortable. OM-ing and bowing/namaste is one of them. I felt a bit uncomfortable in my first yoga class after returning from my first and only Israel trip. I think my experience was so deep and profound spiritually that everything else felt shallow. Now I realize that I was being judgemental in these thoughts. 

I remember Shawna Rosner and I were talking about this years ago and she told me that instead of namaste she would say the Shema. I loved that and I now have adopted that practice (thanks Shawna!). This brings me close to G-d and is a reminder to pray when I am in a good place.

As my Jewish education has expanded and grown through mussar and Sunday school I do see several crossovers in the yoga teachings and mussar. It's all great stuff and it just reinforces that I am on a path of growth.


The Differences:


Shawna Rosner:

First of all, I believe that Orthodoxy and yoga are mutually exclusive and in my life they remain so. I have always been closely identified with being Jewish and practicing Judaism, and did not turn to yoga to fill my need for religion. However, I found that I really cherished the snippets of philosophy on life that were often times interwoven into my yoga classes (and still do). As I have come to study more Torah, and Mussar in particular, I have found many parallels between yoga and Judaism and some differences as well. I no longer go to a yoga class craving the spiritual lesson as I have found it elsewhere (mostly thanks to JFX). 

My yoga practice is based on a mind and body experience. I try to find peace, balance and equanimity in my yoga practice, but I would be deceitful if I didn't admit that the physical benefits of the practice are very important to me. I feel better after yoga and I believe this is just one step in becoming a better me and better able to give more of myself to those around me a d the universe as a whole. I also feel this way after studying Torah and Mussar. 

For me yoga is not a soulful experience. By that I mean I do not feel closer to a higher power when practicing. However, as Jody mentioned I do take the opportunity to say Shema during opening and closing of class and when Sanskrit just doesn't feel right to me. So in essence I bring some Judaism to my mat. 

Thank you for the opportunity to express my views. For those that have not yet read Letters to a Buddhist Jew, as I did in Mussar, I highly recommend it!!


Sindy Warren:

Yoga eemphasizes being in the resent moment.  Learning to sit with the instant discomforts (of he body in asana practice and of the mind in meditation) and not reacting.  To create space betwween stimulus and reaction.  Orthodox Judaism, I think, places a huge emphasis on he future (ie, the World to Come).  Mussar, too, is forward looking and also focused on the post - what should we do in certain situations, looking to our ancestors (the mussar masters) for guidance.  Judaism has a unique way of blending the past with he present and he future - the holidays being representations not nly of our ast but of the present (and future) spiritual energy in the world.

Another interesting difference is the idea of doing or not doing, depending on the practice.  Judaism teaches through action.  Be generous, and you will become more generous.  Do first, then believe.  Yoga teaches the importance of non-action (to wit, the phrase "don't just do something, sit there").  


Sandy Gross:

The main difference (although I focus on the similarities mostly:)  is that Judaism is a dualistic religion.  Yoga, is non-dualistic.  G-d is everywhere including and especially in us.  Two quotes on the walks at the new Evolution:

"The sun shines not on us but in us." John Muir

"My body is my first prop."  BKS Iyengar

And, yoga is not a religion, it's considered an (experiential) science.  The Latin root of the word "religion" is to "realign with your origin." That word religion needs a new PR campaign.   I feel like I am religious then, if you define it that way:). Again, I'm trying!  


Karen Marocco:

Namaste: This is the most uncomfortable part of the yoga practice for me. Namaste is what many teachers and students say when ending a class. Often translated as the light in me honors the light in you (which I think is a beautiful sentiment.) However, literally namaste means "I bow to you."  Even though people bow their heads as a gesture of respect and not worship I was always taught that you don't bow to anyone but God. There have been Jews who have chosen death over bowing to another person. 


Sandy Gross (on bowing):

The bowing in Namaste, to me, in this non-dualistic path of yoga, means you're technically bowing to yourself.  Your higher Self that you share with everyone else... Acknowledging that we are one.  That there really is no separation.  

I think I remember also hearing that the bowing is the representation of the physical, lower-cased self, with the higher Self or light/G-d, energy within that we all share.  

In the OM yoga tradition in which I was trained, we did not bow nor say Namaste. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. 


Thoughts from the Facebook discussion:


Renee:  I think a mindful yoga practice is a lot like living the Kabbalah.  Technically if done properly, EVERYTHING one does is out f gratitude to G-d in both practices - so es, food choices are simple and prayers are offered; positive community; mind/body/spirit connection; ego not important; meditation several times a day...


Ariella:  To be "good" at both you've got to be committed. Both are complicated. 



Allison:  You're always learning with both Judaism and yoga.


Chantal:  I'm very wary of bringing in the spiritual side of yoga as some of the origins really border on avoda zara (idolatry) if not outright... Tread carefully!

Dave:  They're both misunderstood (and dismissed) by the ignorant...

Wendy:  Yoga is quieting the voices in your head, it is profoundly moving if you let it be, it's about gratitude on a very deep level, a connection with yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yoga is good for you. There is no doubt about it. 


What are your thoughts, OOTOB readers?  What's your experience with yoga and/or religious Judaism?  Does yoga satisfy a spiritual or religious need for you?

(For an interesting related read, check out this article and especially the comments.)
42 comments

42 comments:

  1. I have replaced the OM with "Olam" many a time and feels that it honors my Judaism and yet is Hebrew and sounds similar. I have been very uncomfortable with yoga studios that have Buddha and other statues, or where, when I read the instructors' bios ahead of time they describe theologies that are pluralistic (like polytheism). A few times I have looked in vain on the Internet for some kind of Jewish yoga teacher training, not for me, but because I think others with these same discomforts would be interested in "Jewish Yoga."

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  2. Buddhism is not polytheistic nor monotheistic. There is no personal god or monotheistic creator God in Buddhism, as there is in Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Buddhism is a spiritual path based on the teachings of the Buddha, an ordinary man who attained “nirvana,” enlightenment or awakening, around the sixth century B.C. In Buddhism, each individual is responsible for his or her own spiritual awakening, which is achieved through meditation, moral and ethical living, and attainment of wisdom. Buddhism is not based on, or concerned with the human-divine relationship, therefore it is misleading to call it atheistic, monotheistic or polytheistic. I have seen photos of Rabbis at religious schools and at orthodox friends personal homes. Having a Buddha statue, for me, is like that. It's more that he's a role model for something I can and should be trying to attain. That said, in my new studio, I chose not to have any statues any longer because of this misunderstanding.

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    1. Sandy, in Judaism we are not supposed to have a "graven image." There's a difference between a 2-dimensional paragraph (no matter what the relationship between the image and the person) and a statue.

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    2. That would be photograph, not paragraph! Nobody should worship a paragraph. Even an excellent one.

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    3. Even though one is a statue and one is a flat image, to me there's no difference btw a Buddha statue and those pictures of the Lubavitcher rebbe seen all over the place. The Chabad house at our state university has a massive one, and to many people it's really creepy.

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    4. Is it the ubiquitous nature of the same rabbi appearing everywhere? Or the sheer size of the picture? Is there a chabad reader who can comment? Rena?

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    5. Interesting that Ruchi's "literal-mindedness" here renders her more "open" in a way than Tesyaa: The by-the-book interpretation of "graven image" makes photos ok for Ruchi, but they creep Tesyaa out.

      Is the Lubavitcher Rebbe the one whose picture I have seen on that freeway billboard from JFK out toward Long Island? I think I remember there is some nice sentiment on that, but I always found it a little uncomfortable.

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    6. We're not supposed to worship photographs either, but it's OK to use a photograph of someone you admire to inspire you to be a better person, for instance.

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    7. True DG, but I think even a photograph can be worshipped if you're not careful. The difference is that a Torah-observant Jew (and even Jews who aren't might feel weird about this) do not have statues in their home, whether to be worshipped or not. Photographs are fine - just don't enshrine them. A neutral thing (like a gravestone, see story of Moses above) can still be worshipped. Ancient cultures worshipped trees, for example.

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    8. So does that mean an O kid can't go to pottery class (maybe you don't do that anyway) and make an owl or a car out of clay?

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    9. SBW, would a 3D puppet of Moses (along with one of Pharoah) made out of a toilet-paper tube count as a statue? A puppet of the patriarch Jacob (along with one of Esau)? Because these are standard projects in OJ nursery schools.

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    10. But Ruchi said no statues!

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  3. Well, I worship your paragraphs, and I *know* I am not alone:) I get the difference... Still, Buddhism doesn't want the worship of Buddha. The Buddhists I know and respect, don't call themselves Buddhists at all. They just walk the walk. In the Zen tradition, there's a saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems stiff or extreme, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught: that each individual is responsible for his or her own spiritual awakening.

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    1. Haha! You're sweet. That is actually very interesting especially in light of the fact that Judaism agrees. We're not supposed worship, pray to, or ascribe God-like qualities to humans, even very holy ones. We don't believe in needing intermediaries between us and God. That's one reason that Moses's burial place was made secret - so we wouldn't enshrine it. Which brings me to my point. How easy it is to shift from admiration, respect, and reverence for a teacher/mentor/role model, to worship. The Jewish laws acknowledge this weakness and are designed to raise awareness and prevent it.

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    2. Lots of Orthodox Jews pray to intermediaries. (I personally don't agree with it--just saying it happens.)

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    3. Okay, Sarah, I'll take your bait :) Tell more about the lots of Orthodox Jews who pray to intermediaries?

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    4. Not sure what you mean by bait, but some Chasidic groups believe it's permissible to directly petition dead tzadikim who are then supposed to pray on your behalf.

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    5. I just thought it was cute how you dangled that out there without explaining. To ask a departed loved one or righteous person to pray on your behalf - yes. To pray TO them to effect some outcome for you solo - no. You can ask a live person to pray on your behalf, too, but you are supposed to pray as well, so it's not instead of you but rather with you.

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    6. "To pray TO them to effect some outcome for you solo - no."

      I don't think everyone agrees with you on that distinction--some speak of "davening to [fill in the blank with person's name]". And it is still a form of intermediary even if you pray as well.

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    7. Sarah, is that written somewhere or are you quoting from somewhere? Would be curious to know if indeed people pray to a dead person, which I always believed was a no-no in Judaism.

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    8. I am quoting from people talking, so I don't have a written source.

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    9. It IS a subtle but important difference, so it's possible that's people are not being discerning enough in their word choice.

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    10. Ruchi, you are right.

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    11. The distinction can be VERY subtle at times. This from Chabad.org:

      "Throughout his lifetime, the Rebbe received hundreds of letters every day, from people of every conceivable background, occupation and faith.

      Today people continue to send letters to be placed at the Ohel for the Rebbe's guidance and intervention On High, in the age-old tradition of written prayer petitions at our holiest sights."

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    12. I believe there are different opinions on the subject (surprise!). Some say you shouldn't ask deceased people for anything because it is a form of idolatry. Others say you can ask them to intercede on your behalf. So if you ask them to intercede with God, are you praying to them? What's the difference between a prayer and a request? Usually prayer is to God, but I'm not sure in this context.

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    13. Here's the difference:
      "Please, Dad, I know you can hear me. Intercede with God for me, since you're up there in the heavenly spheres, and beg him for help with ____________."

      vs.
      "Please Dad, help so-and-so get well! Help so-and-so find a husband!"

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    14. I think it is so interesting that the conversation has taken this turn. I didn't think I would have much to add to this discussion because I have never done "real" yoga, with it's spiritual focus, though I absolutely love it as an exercise. I never even felt drawn to the spiritual aspect of it. But it dawned on me that I was also never the one to be running to holy graves or even living rabbis whenever problems arose. Sure I did a lot of praying at holy graves when I was in seminary in Israel, but I think I was just praying to G-d at the holy site, not looking for someone to intercede. I always felt a much stronger connection at the Kotel, just me and G-d.
      But everyone relates differently to their spirituality and I imagine that for those to who don't feel the way I do, the spirituality of yoga must have a strong pull. And because of that subtle difference referenced above, yoga could potentially be very dangerous. It doesn't have the Torah to keep the lines from being blurred? Asking, not saying :)

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    15. If a Jewish person approaches yoga without a clear in depth study and understanding of Judaism they certainly can be thrown off course and it can take quite a while to find the way back to not putting too many of ones eggs in one basket.

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  4. And when people of other faiths petition intermediaries, they are also asking the intermediary who is in the heavenly spheres to intercede with God for them. That is like the definition of an intermediary. I'm pretty sure Catholics also still say their prayers to God and ask for stuff themselves alongside the intermediaries.

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    1. Oops that comment was supposed to be in reply to the previous thread of comments. Sorry!

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    2. Sarah, been thinking about your definition of an intermediary. Asking someone to intercede with God because you can't (ie the story of the Golden Calf) is a problem. Asking someone to intercede on your behalf along with you is fine.

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  6. I'm switching computers and seemed to be blocked for awhile, apologies.

    OJ seems to be fine with 'intermediaries' that work top-to-bottom, i.e. interpreting God's word. But not bottom-up?

    I always had some (intellectual) sympathy for the idea of Catholic (and other denominations') saints, and even Greek/Roman gods that offered different personae and qualities to the person wanting comfort, strength, and so on. Which makes me ask:

    Why does God want us to worship in these particular ways? And what does he care if we lean on some humanizations/personae/intermediaries? Why does he want it done only his way? I don't understand this.

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    1. I can't speak for God to say why He wants or doesn't want something. However, while I also sympathize with people seeking comfort from intermediaries, if the false gods don't actually exist, then isn't seeking comfort there a delusion? If the human intermediaries (who do exist) can't communicate with God for me better than I can myself (in other words, God hears me personally anyway), isn't it a case of false hopes?

      As for top-to-bottom versus bottom-to-top, the distinction seems to me to be that God understands us just fine without intermediaries, but we need help understanding God.

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    2. People who are more spiritual than me can pray more effectively than me, but anyone who asks a "holy person" to pray for him/her and doesn't pray himself/herself is making a mistake. Outsourcing your Judaism to a "higher" authority, to me, smacks of intermediaries. I just love your last sentence, DG.

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    3. Do you guys have no tooth fairy? It's a delusion but who gets harmed?

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    4. The chazzan, especially on the high holy days, represents the congregation in prayer, and it's considered an awesome responsibility. In the Temple, the high priest atones for the whole of Israel on Yom Kippur. So maybe these are NOT, technically, intermediaries (I don't get the fine gradations, myself), but it does give that appearance.

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    5. I don't do the tooth fairy because I don't believe in lying to my kids. I know that sounds sanctimonious but it's just the simple truth.

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    6. Is that an O thing or a Ruchi thing?

      So would you not even tell a convenience lie, like when the 4-yr-old wants to go somewhere and you say, "It's closed" just to avoid the fight? (I am here outing myself as a coward and wimp, but only when I'm exhausted and can't deal with the argument.)

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    7. I wouldn't even do that. correct.

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  7. For a different opinion on whether yoga and Judaism are compatible, see the link to this blog (in which I typed in the search word Yoga, as he's written about it many times, speaking from firsthand experience): http://www.mpaths.com/search?q=yoga

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